Sally Kohn: Wild conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton survive despite the facts -- and Donald Trump's behavior
Mistakes were made over Benghazi, but nothing remotely approaching treason, Kohn writes
Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
I recently met a student at the University of Wyoming who wanted to know why, during a speech, I said Benghazi is a non-issue. Because, I explained, after 33 hearings conducted by multiple Congressional committees featuring more than 250 witness appearances, and resulting in hundreds of pages of published reports, no evidence of wrongdoing – either by Hillary Clinton or the State Department more broadly – was found.
That is not to say that no mistakes were made. All of the investigations found there were things in hindsight that Clinton and the State Department could and should have done differently – important lessons to learn in protecting our diplomatic assets going forward. But the fact is the committees found no breach of duty on the part of Clinton.
But because Republicans didn’t like that answer, they launched yet another investigation – which, after two years and more than $7 million in taxpayer dollars, reached the same conclusion. Yet here was this student, insisting in spite of all the findings to the contrary, that Clinton was not only guilty, but that she had deliberately caused the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans. The facts were clearly irrelevant to her conclusion. She was determined to believe in Hillary Clinton’s guilt.
The same is true with the emails, despite a thorough FBI investigation finding no evidence that Clinton had intentionally transmitted or distributed classified information. Comey did say that Clinton’s use of a private email server was “extremely careless” – a slightly stronger wording of self-criticism that Clinton herself leveled before and since. But the Department of Justice accepted the FBI’s recommendations and did not file any criminal charges in the matter.
Despite this, in the first presidential debate, Donald Trump insisted otherwise. “That was more than a mistake. That was done purposely,” Trump said. But as the Washington Post elaborated: “The accuracy of Trump’s claim depends on whether he is referring to her decision to use a private server, or if he is suggesting that Clinton purposefully intended to mishandle classified information. On the former point, yes, Clinton chose on purpose to use a private email server. On the latter, the FBI would disagree.”
Trump, of course, has consistently shown throughout this election that he’s not one to let facts get in the way of his opinions. But he isn’t the only one. One Trump adviser, New Hampshire Republican lawmaker Al Baldasaro, said, “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” When given several chances to walk back these comments, Baldasaro actually repeated them.
The reality is that the statutes on treason require not just being careless with classified information, but “intentionally or knowingly reckless.” It’s outrageous to believe that after a lifetime of patriotic service, Hillary Clinton set up a private email server and sent a handful of retroactively classified emails in order to deliberately undermine the sanctity and safety of our nation.
Remarkably, many Republicans seem to believe just that. What’s even more remarkable is that these wild conspiracy theories survive not only in the face of facts, but despite the obscenely objectionable things that we know Donald Trump has actually done.
Trump was sued by the federal government for discriminating against African American renters, a case that was eventually settled. Donald Trump has also been sued dozens of times by contractors for not paying them for their work. He also smeared and shamed Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado for gaining weight – and then smeared her again during the campaign when she spoke up about it. And he made headlines after being caught on a hot mic before a TV interview bragging about sexually assaulting women – and then dismissing it as locker room talk.
These aren’t conspiracy theories. These are facts. And yet while there are undoubtedly Republicans who are holding their noses when they vote for Trump, many appear willing to excuse or ignore the facts altogether, even as they indulge the most extreme conspiracy theories about Clinton.
The latest twist in the email saga – FBI director James Comey revealing that new emails surfaced that may or may not be relevant to the already-closed investigation – is like catnip for these conspiracy-minded Republicans. Trump, who had bashed Comey for his earlier findings as part of his rant about how the election (and basically everything else) is rigged against the billionaire, said on Friday when news of the new emails broke: “It might not be as rigged as I thought, right? The FBI, I think they’re going to right the ship, folks. I think they’re going to right the ship. And they’re going to save their great reputation by doing so.”
Only when the FBI draws the conclusion Trump and his supporters want will they accept it as truth.
There are some legitimate reasons why the American people don’t always find Hillary Clinton to be very forthcoming, and thus trustworthy. But the overwhelming reason is the presumption of guilt that Republicans have assigned to Clinton for the last 30 years, facts be damned, making Clinton seem conspiratorial simply by the vast number of conspiracies in which Republicans have desperately – albeit unsuccessfully – tried to ensnare her.
And so for the next week, Republicans will continue to hammer the email issue, desperately trying to find a shred of evidence of remotely the degree of deliberate wrongdoing or downright lying that their standard-bearer Donald Trump displays every waking minute.
For those, like me, feeling absolutely devastated about the election of Donald Trump, it’s important to remember that we’ve been through way worse. Ours is a nation that was literally born of the destruction of native peoples and was built through the brutal oppression of African slaves.